Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz, 1942-1957
By Robert Dietsche. Oregon State University Press, 500 Kerr Administration, Corvallis OR 97331; http://oregonstate.edu/dept/press/; 9.7 x 6.9 in; trade paperback; 229 pages, 160 b/w photos, 48 illustrations, 1 map; $24.95
A visitor to Portland today might not realize that the city has a rich history in jazz. Fueled by the shipbuilding boom of World War Two, the city’s black population grew rapidly throughout the 40′s, creating a vibrant community on the east bank of the Willamette. This was a land of wild nightclubs, neighborhood bars, shady speakeasies that were open all night. Big names came to play, artists like Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie, and Louis Armstrong, but the city also produced a number of local talents, like Wardell Gray and Doc Severinsen. It was not, however, to last; the construction of the Memorial Coliseum wiped out much of the jazz scene, and much of its history was lost. Dietsche’s Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz sets out to record that lost history.
Jumptown is by-and-large a narrative prose history. The story of the Portland jazz scene flows generally in a chronological line from the 1940s through to the 1980s, with each chapter focusing on a particular location that was key to the jazz of the time. The text relies heavily on direct research, consisting primarily of interviews with direct participants; many quotes and extended passages are included verbatim. Supporting this are numerous photos, many culled from those individuals. There are also reproductions of numerous LPs including recordings of local talents.
This work contains a wealth of information on the history of Portland music and Portland’s black neighborhoods. The book is not written for jazz neophytes however; many portions seem to be a stream of name-dropping, as if the book is a bop version of the Chronicles in the King James’ Bible. Without this context, many passages will feel confusing or dense, and even with it, it seems to be more a who’s who list than a story. The book does yield up some gems of local history, however, including the locations of most of the big clubs and some entertaining anecdotes in the words of witnesses and participants themselves.
The book is printed in the dimensions of a typical hardbound book, but is in a softcover trade paperback binding. Paper weight is smooth and the photos are reproduced adequately. The back of the book contains a discography of Portland-related music that proves handy.
Though a bit thin, the book is the only work I am aware of dedicated specifically to Portland jazz culture. Jazz lovers will no doubt understand the laundry list of names better than the average reader, and there is enough obscure history of the city that it will prove a worthy edition for Portland historians wishing for a truly broad library.